When your child advances from their first steps to their first tooth, it’s time to start thinking about their dental hygiene habits. The earlier you instill brushing and flossing habits, the better. That way you can set them up for a lifetime of success, and you won't have to drop a pretty penny on corrective dental care later on.
According to the Center for Disease Control, cavities are one of the most common chronic diseases of childhood, but they are 100% preventable if you are properly caring for your child’s teeth.
Brushing and flossing are foreign concepts to toddlers, so kids' oral health starts with their parents. If you want your children to have healthy teeth and proper dental hygiene habits for the rest of their lives, then keep reading to help guide your family through the best oral care habits.
How to Brush and Floss for Kids
- Floss and use mouthwash before brushing - This may come as a surprise, but Dr. Flora Stay DDS recommends rinsing with mouthwash and flossing before brushing to loosen stuck food and plaque, and allow the toothpaste to better penetrate between the teeth when you brush. Have your child start by swishing around an alcohol-free mouthwash, and as soon as they have two or more teeth that touch, they should start flossing with a lightly waxed floss.
- Use the right amount of toothpaste - The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends a rice sized smear for children 1-3 years of age, and a pea sized amount for children three and up. Choose a fluoride-free toothpaste that doesn't contain sulfates or any of these other toothpaste ingredients to avoid.
- Brush - Angle toothbrush at 45 degrees, and brush the inside, outside, and chewing surfaces of the teeth back and forth and in small, circular motions. Turn the toothbrush vertical to reach the inside of the front teeth.
- Brush for at least two minutes, making sure each tooth gets brushed.
- Clean tongue - The tongue is a breeding ground for bacteria so make sure your child brushes their tongue to help prevent bad breath. You can also use a dedicated tongue scraper to remove any built up gunk.
- Spit - If you’re using a fluoride toothpaste, make sure your child spits it all out. A fluoride free toothpaste will be safe to swallow, so if your child has problems spitting (or loves the taste of their paste) choose a children’s xylitol toothpaste instead. Rinse with water or a bit more mouthwash.
- How often? - Brush at least twice a day, and floss at least once.
Dental Hygiene for Babies
As soon as you see a tooth emerge, it’s time to start brushing your baby’s teeth. The first tooth typically comes in at around 6 months of age, and by the time they’re a year old they’ll likely have multiple. When the first tooth breaks the surface, start brushing using a small, soft-bristled toothbrush and a tiny smear of toothpaste.
Even before their teeth come in, brush the gums with a damp cloth to help wipe away bacteria and get them used to the brushing sensation.
Visiting the Dentist
Not only do you need to help your child brush twice a day, but regular trips to the dentist are necessary for well-rounded oral care.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends that children see their dentist for a checkup and cleaning every six months starting from the time their first tooth emerges, or before their first birthday, whichever comes first.
Dental checkups are the only way to ensure that your child hasn’t developed any new cavities, signs of gum disease, or any other dental issues. The cleaning portion of the appointment also helps to remove plaque and tartar buildup that can lead to tooth decay down the line if left to fester.
Things that Cause Cavities
Any child can get a cavity if they are not brushing and flossing properly, or they are not seeing the dentist twice a year. However, some factors put children at a higher risk for developing cavities.
- Over-consuming sugary foods and beverages - Things like candy, juice, sodas, and other sugary snacks are fine (and delicious) in moderation, but sugar helps feed the bad, cavity-causing bacteria in the mouth. Because of this, too much sugar can increase the risk of cavities. Instead of snacking on sugary treats, try giving your kids some of these healthy snacks for healthy teeth.
- Tooth anatomy - Another genetic factor, the anatomy of your child’s smile like overlapping teeth and grooves in molars can make brushing more difficult which can lead to stuck food and plaque between teeth.
Cavity Treatments for Children
If your child develops a cavity, their dentist will likely recommend one of two treatment options: fillings or crowns.
Fillings remove the decayed part of the tooth and replace it with filling material which is typically either gold, silver, porcelain, or composites.
Crowns are used in rare cases for severe tooth decay. A stainless steel prosthetic tooth is placed over what is left of the decaying tooth.
Is cavity treatment necessary for baby teeth?
Primary teeth, often referred to as baby teeth, will eventually fall out, so if your child gets a cavity on a baby tooth, do you need to get it fixed? The short answer is yes.
Baby teeth are placeholders for the permanent adult teeth that will grow in and (hopefully) last a lifetime. If a baby tooth with a cavity is left untreated, the decay can spread to the permanent tooth, it can lead to infection and overall pain, and it can also have a negative effect on overall health.
Some parents may want to have a decaying primary tooth pulled instead of treated with a filling. However, this can cause developmental and chewing problems, and lead to shifting teeth which will impact where the permanent teeth grow in later on.
If the tooth is close to falling out anyway, some pediatric dentists may elect to pull the tooth, but if there’s a way to go before that, then a filling is likely necessary.
Best Ways to Prevent Cavities in Children
There are several steps to take to help protect your child from cavities during childhood and throughout their life.
- Brush and floss daily - Make sure that your child develops consistent brushing and flossing habits.
- Sealants - Sealants are thin coatings placed on the molars (where 9 out of 10 cavities occur) to shield against germs and food, and prevent decay. According to the ADA, dental sealants reduce your child’s risk of developing cavities by 80%.
Should Kids Use a Fluoride Toothpaste?
Fluoride is a mineral that is found in tap water, soil, and most toothpastes since it helps strengthen enamel which can prevent cavities. But fluoride isn’t always safe, especially for children.
If you flip over a tube of fluoridated toothpaste you will see a warning label that reads, “Keep out of reach of children under 6 years of age. If you accidentally swallow more than used for brushing, seek professional help or contact a poison control center immediately.” This is because fluoride can be toxic if a large amount is swallowed. Too much fluoride can also lead to white spots on the enamel known as dental fluorosis.
Many people still think that you absolutely need fluoride in toothpaste to avoid cavities. Not only is the majority of tap water fluoridated which provides the necessary amount of fluoride to strengthen enamel, but xylitol is a more than adequate alternative to fluoride that is not toxic if swallowed.
How to Make Brushing Fun for Kids
If you struggle to get your kids to brush their teeth try these tips to make brushing more fun.
- Let your child pick out their own toothbrush in a color they enjoy.
- Choose a toothpaste with a fun flavor, but try to avoid artificial dyes and fluoride.
- Sing two minutes of their favorite song (Baby Shark seems to be a popular choice)
- Create a reward system - Make a chart and add a sticker or check mark every day that your child brushes twice a day. If they don’t miss a brush, treat them to a small prize.
- If your little one is nervous about going to the dentist, plan a fun day surrounding their dentist appointment.
How Often to Replace Your Child’s Toothbrush
Generally speaking, most dentists and toothbrush manufacturers recommend that you replace your toothbrush after about 3-4 months. This does however change based on certain circumstances. For example: your toddler may chew on the toothbrush head which can lead to more frayed bristles than normal. Keep an eye on your little one’s toothbrush, and if you notice the bristles fraying or curling up before the three month mark hits, then swap it out for a fresh, new toothbrush.
Read more information on why and when you need to replace your toothbrush.
One of the pillars of childhood is losing your first tooth and awaiting a visit from the tooth fairy. Children start to lose their baby teeth around the age of six, and they should continue the same brushing and flossing habits so that the permanent teeth that are growing in stay healthy. If you notice any teeth coming in crooked or not at all, make an appointment with your child’s dentist because they may be dealing with overcrowding.
You only get two sets of teeth in your life, so make sure you instill the best oral hygiene habits in your children. When their permanent teeth pop out they will be prepared to foster a strong, clean, and bright smile for as long as possible.